• Tue. Apr 13th, 2021

How the pandemic brought life back into our living rooms

Piano teachers like me travel back in time to the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries every day to teach Bach’s preludes and fugues, to reenact Mozart’s operatic piano sonatas, and to regenerate Chopin’s passionate nocturnes. Just a piano and a score are needed to transport us to living rooms, previously known as front rooms, receiving rooms, drawing rooms, sitting rooms, parlors, and salons, where these musical masterpieces often premiered.

In past centuries, this room served as the center of family life. It was for formally receiving visitors, for playing games, making music, writing letters, and reading books. There, playwrights presented dramas, authors and poets read their works aloud, composers and musicians performed — all steadfast traditions. Until the early 1900s, it was also a mournful place: viewings and wakes were commonly held there for deceased relatives. When “living room” originated is unclear; the term can be found in Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr.’s 1897 groundbreaking book, The Decoration of Houses. But it’s the Ladies’ Home Journal that’s often credited with popularizing the term in a 1910 article.

Then in the 1950s building boom, the addition of a family room with its comfy sofas drew the family in to do homework, watch TV, or listen to music on stereos. Basements became rec rooms with pool or table tennis. The living room was again reserved for formal visits, the finer furniture upholstered in aqua tones and smothered in plastic. In homes without a finished basement or family room, the 20th-century living room remained a center of home entertainment, but the plays, book sharing, and music making often gave way to the ultimate entertainer — the TV. Students’ pianos drifted to sunrooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, even closet spaces.

Now, technology rules every room. Reading aloud occurs in the car with audiobooks, or as a solo activity with a smartphone and headphones. Authors and poets read new works at bookstores. Live music is mobile through hand-held devices. And the living room? That depends. It’s the default room for larger gatherings, and now, during the pandemic, as office space for children and adults. It’s still the most popular place for students’ pianos and digital keyboards, though some of my students have theirs in their own place of refuge, their bedrooms.

Even though I’ve been a crusader of using computer programs and iPad apps for teaching, my living room remains my refuge, where I teach my students, practice on my grand piano, and play chamber music with my daughter on violin and my son on cello. But like everyone else’s home spaces, the pandemic forced immediate rethinking. When the COVID-19 pandemic first crescendoed last March, quarantine requirements pushed my colleagues and me into online teaching over seven hectic days. We drew on qualities required for our profession: creativity, fortitude, and patience.

The first week I bounced between FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom. Connections were spotty, sound was distorted, screens froze for minutes that felt like hours. By week 11, I had four devices connected — for Zoom hosting, mirroring a closeup of the keys, viewing online scores, and projecting the games I play with students. Although I’ve been able to troubleshoot Internet and sound issues, the result is far from ideal. Technology hasn’t yet replaced the deep resonance that the wood and strings of a piano create.

But being forced to teach online altered my perspective. Instead of students entering my living room to play my piano, I was beamed into their living rooms, hearing them play on their instruments. Not once did I hear the perennial student excuse, “It sounded better at home!” I met their pets. I could assess if the bench was too high, too low, too close or too far from the keyboard. I heard the background noises my students have to compete with. But most striking from this new vantage point was seeing that the living room has once again become the center of live performance.

For a piano teacher and students, the culminating event of the year is the annual recital, often held in a church or library. My late mother was also a piano teacher and an accomplished player, and I’m fortunate to have her piano studio available for performances — an open space with a cathedral ceiling and skylights, two Steinway grand pianos and seating for 60. Not this year.

I could have hosted a Zoom meeting of live performances, but I wanted better sound quality and no panic-inducing technical glitches. My students pre-recorded their performances from their living rooms or wherever their pianos or keyboards were. My daughter produced a video to be shown on the recital evening. I recorded my welcoming and closing speeches, and high school senior tribute, all from my living room, and compiled photos of current students taken over the years for a slide show.

Did every student dress up? Was there an annual group picture? Did students race to the refreshments table to stack their plates with chocolate eclairs, mini cupcakes, and frosted brownies? You know the answer.

Then what did we have? We had a recital showcasing young musicians’ accomplishments, shared with family and friends, who followed along on printed programs and snacked on cookies I delivered ahead of time.

We’ve reclaimed our living rooms and other places of refuge to share life’s meaningful moments. During the pandemic, that’s more important than it might seem. In the end, we created the same environment of presenting music from hundreds of years ago — a wonderful, intimate evening of piano performances in our homes. With the aid of modern technology, we’ve gone back 300 years.

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Elizabeth Reed is an author, musician, activist, and traveler living in Belmont. Send comments to [email protected]